Layering for Whitetails
The difficult process of choosing whitetail gear is further complicated by advertising claims and consumer biases. There is also the advent of social media, which has unarguably exacerbated the glamorization of the fashion hunting industry. I wear gear that is what most people would consider “expensive”, but I wear it because it works. If you are going to invest in any gear that will assist you in the field, you should be doing it for its utility, not its popularity. Its also important to understand that some of the popular brands are popular because of a deserved reputation gained through superior performance. This is certainly the case with the technical hunting clothing and layering systems available today.
In this article I will be using some examples of Kuiu apparel, because this is most of what I currently own and use. These pieces are simply an example, and the fundamentals and principles of a layering system and their benefits can be achieved through many different brands and options- there is more than one way to skin this cat. What one hunter places value on may be slightly different than another hunter’s priorities. Different hunting styles allow for sacrifices in some areas, or create justification for gains in others.
Why Consider a Layering System for Whitetails?
System layering for whitetail hunting hasn’t been mainstream for very long. In fact, I would argue it still is not. The old days of layering 2, 3 even 4 sweatshirts and heading to the woods with 15 lbs of clothing on your back, sweating profusely, still managing to freeze while on stand, and having trouble anchoring your bow string because of excessive clothing bulk, are over. There are more efficient ways to layer which can provide a hunter with less clothing weight and bulk, and significantly more mobility. The benefits of layering to the active mountain hunter are obvious. Thermal regulation can occur by adding or subtracting layers based on physical exertion. It’s true that a static hunter, one who is sitting on stand for hours on end moving as little as possible, has different needs. A heavy outer garment with lots of insulation may seem like the easiest way to go, but it is often lacking in the areas of weight efficiency and versatility. Very often, these systems are only used once temperatures plunge below freezing; so the hunter must still develop another whole system for early or mid season bowhunting. The expense can start to add up and soon a layering system starts to look cheap in comparison.
If assembled correctly, a layering system can provide a whitetail hunter with numerous combinations for a broad spectrum of temperatures. One well-thought-out system can take a hunter from the beginning of season to the end. The weight savings associated with developing a layering system, vs. one with heavy thermal outer layers, can be significant, giving the hunter a rare combination of high warmth-to-weight efficiency, superior versatility and arguably the best bang for their buck. If you are a mobile hunter, carrying a stand and sticks on your back to your hunting destinations, and you could shave anywhere from 2-5 lbs of weight, while saving a couple hundred dollars, and improve system performance, would you do it?
Below are some of the concerns I had with my prior hunting apparel and how I solved the issues through the implementation of a layering system.
Problem 1: Base layer basics
I spent a lot of years hunting in synthetic compression layers similar to the sports apparel that Under Armour became famous for. I layered heavily over this base and was still cold. The reason was twofold. First, the synthetic material of my base layer would become damp with perspiration when I walked to my stand. I typically wore some of my insulation layers as I walked in and it was rare I did not work up somewhat of a sweat. My layers were simply too bulky and too heavy to feasibly pack them, so the easiest way to get them in the woods with me was to wear them. Once I was wet from perspiring during my walk, my layers weren’t providing me with the same thermal efficiency as they may have otherwise. Secondly, I usually put my outer layers on immediately and essentially trapped the moisture and water vapor inside my clothing. As soon as my body temperature cooled, the wet base layers actually pulled heat away from my skin. While the base layers would eventually get wet with perspiration, they also were generally hydrophobic. They did not absorb moisture extremely well unless there was an excess of it, and the remaining moisture was left on my skin where it would start to evaporate and provide even more of a cooling effect. A hydrophillic base layer that is absorptive will pull moisture away from your skin and into the garment. Additionally, some fabrics will continue to insulate after they are wet, while others will not.
The second thing that was occurring with these compression-type base layers was the restriction of blood flow once I was in my stand and moving very little. If you are active, compression layers can be an asset to your circulation, but they really have little benefit to the static hunter. Between the cool dampness of perspiration and the lack of blood flow to my extremities, I was routinely uncomfortable in the tree stand.
Merino wool. Every whitetail hunter should know those words. It is hard to beat merino’s warmth efficiency. It’s also unbelievable how merino wool provides a naturally odor resistant base layer. Merino wool contains lanolin which is an antimicrobial substance that provides the sheep with resistance to skin infection. It also provides the hunter with an essentially odor-free base layer. Additionally, the moisture managing properties of merino wool create an environment where bacteria has a harder time growing and reproducing. Merino wool is also incredibly warm for the weight of the fabric. Crimps in wool fibers create loft and naturally insulating air spaces in the garment. Merino fibers have close to 100 times more crimps per inch than other wool fibers and even “thick” merino fibers (24 microns) are less than half the diameter of a human hair. This means that when fibers are damaged there, are less abrasions that are felt against your skin. This gives merino wool its soft, no-itch feel. Merino fibers also have the ability to retain 30-35% of their weight in water. This means that the fabric has the ability to wick moisture from your skin to help regulate your body temperature. This is also likely merino’s most significant drawback, in that it dries slower than some synthetics. It’s hard to categorize this as a drawback though, because I have found merino to dry incredibly quickly. And unless you plan to sweat significantly in a very humid climate, it is hard to trade all of merino’s other benefits for something that is less relevant to a tree stand hunter’s situation. The polyester base layers I have worn, although they claim to be infused with anti-microbial technology, don’t hold a candle to the odor control achievable with merino wool. Merino wool base layers are not compression layers and because of this, in addition to the aforementioned properties, they are a static Whitetail hunter’s best friend. Odor control, warmth-to-weight efficiency and moisture management while allowing for full circulation is the combination you need in the tree stand. The weight of merino layers is measured as grams per square meter (GSM or g/m2). 200+ g/m2 fabric weight is my preferred weight for tree stand hunting in the Northeast.
Problem 2: Michelin Man Insulation
Turtle neck, cotton hoody, fleece pullover, cotton hoodie #2, polyester vest, sweatpants etc. etc. etc. A few years ago I was wearing so many heavy, inefficient layers that my mobility was reduced significantly and my stamina was likewise affected. Carrying 12-15 pounds of clothing on your back is taxing. And when that clothing is thermally inefficient, it becomes hard to justify the weight. I had so many “insulation” layers on that there were times that I was unable to properly anchor my bow string. I don’t know what would have happened if I had seen the buck of a lifetime on one of those hunts, but I would have likely been scrambling to adjust my apparel while a dream deer was walking out of my life forever. The packability of these layers is non-existent. They don’t compress, they are heavy, they are bulky. The best way I could get all the clothing to the woods, which I needed to wear to stay even a little warm, was to wear it. As mentioned, I ended up in a sweat, which turned into a cold sweat and then I was freezing within an hour on stand. Cotton is a poor choice for insulation, as are many polyester blends. Fleece is a better insulation material, and creates a larger air barrier, but it isn’t sufficient as a sole mid- layer piece.
Packable lofting insulation in the form of down, down blends or synthetics solve multiple problems for the tree stand hunter. Air is a great insulator, and sweatshirts layered on top of sweatshirts do a poor job of taking advantage of this. Down is rated by fill power (fp) and, for example, 850fp down lofts to 850 cubic inches per ounce of down. This means that the higher the down rating, the more loft and air the garment will possess. A garment made with 100% goose down as its fill is incredibly efficient in insulation properties and light in weight. Instead of 5-8, or more, pounds of insulation layers, a static hunter may be able to reduce their mid layers to as little as a pound or two using down, a down blend or a synthetic down product.
The negative of down is that once the fibers are saturated with water, its ability to loft is lost and with it, its insulating properties are severely diminished. Companies are developing treated down products that coats the down fibers to make them resistant to moisture, and their garments are usually treated with a durable water repellent finish on a down proof membrane as a first line of moisture protection. Still, back country hunters are sometimes wary of utilizing down because of the reality of reduced performance in wet conditions. A whitetail hunter in the Northeast or Midwest, who is not backpacking overnight, isn’t playing the same high stakes game as someone who is 10 miles from the nearest thoroughfare. Some companies have chosen to develop apparel that utilizes a down and synthetic blend in order to take advantage of the warmth-to-weight efficiency of down while providing some performance in wet conditions. The sacrifice typically comes in the form of a slightly heavier, slightly less pack-able piece of clothing.
Other companies have developed synthetic fibers that replicate the performance of down while their hydrophobic nature helps to preserve their performance when wet. Another drawback of a down layer is that because the outer shell of the garment needs to be “down-proof”, (so that the fill is not lost through the fabric), the layers lack the breath-ability of a synthetic insulation layer. Active spot and stalk style hunters should probably consider an insulation with a higher breath-ability than down.
But, static stand hunters can pack down to the tree stand and put their insulation and outer layers on once they arrive at their destination. This reduces perspiration and leaves you with a layer that has a level of wind resistance, is treated with durable water repellent, and is able to be compressed to the size of a softball in your backpack. Don’t plan on using down layers as an outer layer for bowhunting though, as they will be noisier than synthetic insulation layers which might utilize brushed faces and quieter fabrics. Down insulation is highly efficient, and its benefits for the tree stand hunter far outweigh its shortcomings, however, the selection of down, down blends or a synthetic insulation is situation specific. The most important thing is to consider your system weight, and how you will transport your layers.
Lastly, it is easy to get confused by all the insulation options in the market place right now. Aside from fp ratings or the many different synthetic products, tree stand hunters need to assess the versatility of their system. Some might advise the purchase of one heavy insulation mid-layer, although I decided to go the route of purchasing a down jacket and a down vest. A customer service representative at an apparel company probably won’t advise you to assemble a layering system like this, because it isn’t exactly how the system is designed. However, many of the down options designed for mountain hunting utilize a highly efficient down but do not incorporate as much insulation in the garment as a static hunter needs in late December. Adding a second down layer in the form of a vest does two things, it provides more insulation and warmth and it maintains a higher level of versatility in your system.
A heavier down coat is a great option and can be highly effective, but if you are looking to buy the least amount of items possible and want to get from the beginning to end of season with one system, an ultra light down jacket and an ultra light down vest can accomplish this quite nicely. I typically get through all of late October and November utilizing one down layer, and incorporate the second during December firearms season. The down jacket, vest and pant I wear weigh 9.5, 7.4 and 11.6 ounces, respectively, and are the pieces most responsible for the weight reduction in my whitetail system.
Problem 3: Mid season versatility
For a number of years I utilized a carbon lined scent control jacket and pants as my outer layer. While I was never sure it actually worked for scent control, I figured it couldn’t hurt. During those years, I felt I needed to have a scent controlling outer layer on whenever I was on stand, and so I wore that jacket and pants from October to December. What I should have done was found a lighter weight jacket, but I felt it was difficult to justify a separate early season system since the majority of my hunting time would occur after November 1st, anyway. The result? I often was on stand sweating like crazy through mid October. I would have been better to go out in my camo fleece which I used as a mid layer through late season, and just left the scent control jacket at home, but at the time my mentality was different. Now, my system allows me to utilize a lightweight mid-layer piece as an abrasion resistant outer layer through mid season.
A technical mid/outer layering piece like Kuiu’s Peloton 240 full zip hoodie can become the most versatile piece in your whole system. Other companies have similar items, such as the Braken Wear Roam Fleece which I utilized often this past season. A full zip hoodie, one that provides some performance details that a simple cotton pull-over does not, is invaluable to an archery hunter. Some of these technical pieces offer a bit of wind resistance while remaining highly breathable. Comfort and mobility can be retained for the archer and the fleece backing that many of these garments offer is helpful for a bit of added warmth.
The Kuiu Peloton full zip hoodie has been my go to outer layer during almost all of October, worn with only a down jacket and merino base underneath it. This particular garment’s unique and proprietary knit design allows for significant garment stretch without the use of elastic. Elastic lacks insulating properties and becomes heavy when wet. The result is a super light hoodie that gives the hunter zero restrictions on mobility. During colder weather, I incorporated the slightly heavier Braken Wear Roam Fleece as a mid-layer under my soft shell outers. This piece, worn combination with my super down layers, kept me in the stand during long, cold all day sits into December.
Problem 4: (non)Weatherproof outers
The heavy, bulky outer layers I had previously utilized incorporated an outer face that was similar to a micro fleece. While these layers where a quiet choice, they became waterlogged with the slightest drizzle of rain. Though they had a certain level of weather proof properties, most of the performance came from the inner lining of the garment keeping the moisture from fulling penetrating to my mid-layers than it did from the garment’s outer shell shedding precipitation. The jacket and pant system I was using were also incredibly slow-drying, and if they were soaked during a hunt, they were unlikely to be dry by the next day. Since I don’t have access to a clothes dryer where we spend most of our hunting time, I eventually needed a second set of outer layers as a backup to my primary ones. This resulted in plenty of times where I elected to not hunt in wet conditions. Not only was it miserable to sit in the stand and get soaking wet, but I couldn’t afford to have wet clothing for the remaining days of hunting. When weather conditions begin to affect the time you can spend afield, it is time for some change.
Durable Water Repellent outer layers have become a necessity in my layering system. Not only are they weather resistant, most technical outer layers integrate some form of windproof membrane as well. This is an important feature for the Northern whitetail hunter. Between the wind resistance of a soft shell outer layer and the down proof membrane of my system’s insulation layers, I don’t feel the wind blow. This keeps me in the stand longer on those cold, blustery December days.
The second reason I have gravitated to soft shell outer layers with DWR is that this style jacket and pants are typically going to be faster drying than heavily insulated fleece outer layers. They are also lighter and don’t hold as much water weight. I like to think of my outer layers as the siding of a house. They might provide a bit of insulation, but the high R-value comes from the insulation located between the drywall and the siding.
The trade off of some of the outers with DWR finishes, and a less brushed finish, is that they are presumably less quiet than those fleece outer layers that have been popular with whitetail hunters for years. I say “presumably”, because I have yet to be busted from a deer hearing my movement because of the fabric with which my outer layers are constructed. It’s been my theory that if you are moving fast enough for a deer to hear you, you have a much better chance of them visually busting you. The outer layers I use are Kuiu’s Guide Series, although I have also had excellent luck with the significantly less expensive Teton soft shell jacket that they manufacture.
Other companies offer soft shell jackets which perform similarly, Skre, Sitka, Plythal, First Lite and others produce soft shells which can provide some of the same performance features for the whitetail hunter. The same principle can be applied across several technical clothing companies.
It’s fair to note that a DWR finish is not water-proof, it is water repellent. A heavy downpour can soak these layers and rain gear is the next consideration if you are interested in becoming fully weatherproof. I utilize Kuiu’s Teton rain gear because it is extremely pack-able and weighs as little as my merino base layers. It easily fits over my system (I buy a size up in outer layers and rain gear to allow room for layering and mobility). This is not Kuiu’s highest rated rain gear, in fact it is their lowest performing and cheapest priced. But it is exactly what a whitetail hunter needs for stand hunting. It is so compact and takes up so little room that I will throw it in my pack if there is even a chance of rain in the forecast. It’s worth noting that this rain gear is not going to withstand any brush-busting during a still hunt, but I’ve found it to be ideal for the tree stand. It’s also worth noting that some people will initially find the rain gear to be too noisy for bowhunting, but, if you’ve ever hunted in a steady rain, you know that a significant amount of noise is drowned out by rain drops hitting the leaves on the forest floor. Because of this, I have never had a noise issue when wearing this piece of my system.
The concept of layering systems can be broken down to three clothing components- base layers, mid insulation layers, and weather resistant outers. A whitetail hunters priorities for their base layer should be moisture wicking, non- compression and odor resistant, instead of the quick drying compression layers an active hunter might choose. The priorities for mid-layer insulation should be high efficiency warmth-to-weight ratios, instead of the breathable membranes used with synthetic insulation that are more suitable for active hunting. An optional mid-to-outer layering piece can add versatility throughout October and additional warmth as a layering piece in late season. It is important for outer layers to offer DWR, be fast drying and lightweight.
My system weight is as follows:
Base layer merino top: 11.6 oz
Base layer merino bottoms: 10.2 oz
Down jacket: 9.5 oz
Down vest: 7.4 oz
Down pant: 11.6 oz
Mid-layer hoodie: 16.5 oz
DWR jacket: 27.5
DWR pant: 20.8 oz
Total system weight: 7.4 lbs
Prior clothing weight: 12.56 lbs
Weight Savings: 5.16 lbs
Regardless of what you brand or system you choose to wear into the woods, make sure you understand the ingredients within each part of each system so you can make an educated decision regarding what will work best for your style of hunting. Understand that a mobile, public land hunter is going to have different system needs than a private land hunter who may be able to take a four wheeler to a box blind. Understanding the performance, the benefits, and the limitations and drawbacks of the garments will allow you to customize your hunting clothing to meet your specific needs. And believe me when I tell you, getting a layering system dialed in is going to change your hunting experience entirely.